Worcester proposes $100m-plus in subsidies to steal PawSox from Rhode Island, now what?

Earlier this summer, the state of Rhode Island rejected a request by the owners of the Pawtucket Red Sox to fund a new stadium in Pawtucket. On Friday, the team owners announced their decision: They will be moving the franchise to Worcester, which will build a new stadium with public funds that the team will be repaying with rent and other team-related revenues, in a major win for the Massachusetts city.

All of that previous paragraph was reported in various media over the weekend. Virtually none of it is 100% true.

Let’s start where we left off: With the June legislative vote of the Rhode Island legislature, which actually approved $38 million in state and city subsidies toward a new Pawtucket stadium. What it didn’t do was promise that the state would cover any shortfalls in tax revenues set to pay off the stadium bonds, which could have raised interest rates to the point that the PawSox owners got snippy about it.

At the time — really, at just about any time in the last three years — Worcester was out there as a potential relocation threat, but nothing more specific than that, as nobody had publicly talked about how to pay for building a stadium there. That’s what changed on Friday, as the PawSox owners and the city of Worcester signed a “letter of intent” to build a $90 million, 10,000-seat stadium as part of a $200 million mixed-use development with hotels, apartments, and retail.

As for how it would all be paid for, here’s what the news media — at least those not too busy declaring the deal an “economic grand slam” for Worcester — is reporting it:

  • The city would borrow $100.8 million, while the team owners would kick in $6 million in cash. Of the city’s portion, rent payment from the team will pay for $30.2 million over 30 years — it’s not clear from the reporting if that’s $30.2 million in total rent payments, or enough rent payments to pay off $30.2 million in borrowing, which would be a whole lot more. (Just like $30.2 million in mortgage payments wouldn’t be enough to pay of a $30.2 million house, unless you got a no-interest loan.)
  • Assuming it’s the latter, that still leaves $70.6 million to be repaid by new tax revenues from the development — in other words, our old friend tax increment financing. But this is a TIF with a twist: Instead of just kicking back tax revenue from the stadium itself, the project would come packaged with that pile of hotels and housing and retail space — all of which would pay property (and other? reporting is unclear) taxes not to the city treasury to pay for services for all this new development, but toward the stadium’s construction debt.
  • The state would also kick in $35 million for a parking garage and “unspecified infrastructure improvements,” according to the Worcester Business Journal.

That brings the total public subsidy to at least $105.6 million, and possibly closer to $120 million if those rent payments are actual dollar amounts on the team owners’ checks. Either way, I’m pretty sure that this would be easily the largest public subsidy for any minor-league baseball team ever, and would blow away Rhode Island’s offer, even if that state hadn’t capped its debt responsibilities in the final bill.

So Worcester has just bought itself a really expensive Triple-A team, right? Not quite yet: The city council still needs to sign off on the whole mess, and while Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker is in favor of the state garage money, it may yet require state legislative approval as well. So notwithstanding all the talk about stadium construction starting next July, there may be some bothersome hearings and votes and such yet to go.

Officials in Rhode Island, and Pawtucket, meanwhile, are understandably steamed that after approving what they thought was a pretty good offer in June, the next thing they heard from PawSox officials was a letter on Friday saying, “Sorry, we found someone with more money.” PawSox CEO Larry Lucchino, meanwhile, put the blame squarely on Rhode Island for not scurrying to cough up more money more promptly, as it is the state’s job to do:

“As I said in our meeting on Monday, Aug. 6, ‘Where have you been?’ That’s not directed at your personally, but at all of those involved in the process.”

“The state’s delays cost Pawtucket dearly,” the baseball executive said.

In the end — if this is the end, which it probably isn’t yet — it’s an indication of how negotiating with minor-league team owners is exponentially harder than doing so with major-league ones, because there’s a near-infinite number of equally middling-sized cities to move to. Pawtucket’s best hope was that no cities within easy reach of Boston (where the Red Sox want their top minor-league teams close by) would take the bait and deliver a suitcase full of cash to Lucchino’s door; instead, Worcester came up with the fattest suitcase in history. Score one against Roger Noll’s theory that the tide is turning.

Rhode Island would have to siphon off $77m in future taxes to keep PawSox bondholders happy

As the Pawtucket Red Sox owners continue to mull over whether $38 million in free money is enough not to throw back in the face of Rhode Island taxpayers, the state treasurer’s office has issued a report estimating that — you know what, let’s start with how WPRI is reporting it, then backtrack to explain what it actually means:

The new PawSox stadium and its surrounding area will need to generate about $5 million a year in state and city tax revenue to cover borrowing for the ballpark under newly enacted legislation, according to a revised analysis.

In a memo issued Monday, General Treasurer Seth Magaziner’s staff said their current forecast indicates about $3.2 million in tax revenue will be needed to make debt payments on the tax-backed borrowing for the project. In addition, bondholders will want to see about $2 million more in tax revenue generated on top of that to ensure some cushion.

So that’s not actually an annual cost of $5 million, mind you — that would be an insane interest rate on $38 million in public stadium debt. (12.8%, if this thing is working right.) Rather, it’s just Magaziner’s estimate of how much excess revenue the stadium would have to promise before bondholders would not get cold feet about buying something based entirely on future property tax revenues from development that hasn’t happened yet.

This is one of the big problems with tax increment financing projects, as the PawSox stadium would be: You’re basically drawing an arbitrary line around your development and declaring that any increase in property taxes within that zone will be siphoned off and used for paying for the development. Draw the line too large, and you end up including taxes from property that would have been developed anyway without the new project, and so cannibalizing money that the public treasury could otherwise keep; draw the line too narrowly, and you risk a shortfall in revenues. (Bondholders, being only concerned about getting a return on their investment and not on what’s good public policy, are naturally more alarmed about the latter prospect.)

So the good news is it wouldn’t really cost Rhode Island $5 million a year (which comes to a present value of almost $77 million, if this thing is working right) to pay off stadium bonds — any excess money could be kept by the Pawtucket Redevelopment Agency and used for something else. The bad news is that the size of the TIF district whose property taxes will be redirected to the PRA is probably going to have to be really freaking huge in order to placate bondholders — which means it’s extremely likely that taxes that have nothing to do with the stadium will be redirected to help pay for it. That’s exactly what Rhode Island House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello promised wouldn’t happen, but, well, “bait and switch” is such an ugly phrase.

Rhode Island legislature agrees to hand over $38m in tax money to PawSox, now has to hope team owners turn it down

The Rhode Island legislature approved a funding plan for a new Pawtucket Red Sox stadium on the eve of its final session of the year Friday night, with the state house voting it in 53-13 in the morning, and the state senate following suit a little after 10 p.m. by a 26-6 margin. This would seem to finalize the $38 million in state and city subsidies that the team owners have been seeking to replace 76-year-old McCoy Stadium — except that the team owners still haven’t committed to accepting it:

The team released a noncommittal statement after the vote Friday night.

“We saw this proposed legislation for the first time only this morning, so it would be premature to comment further without having studied its terms and ramifications,” the team said. “We will continue to work with the city of Pawtucket to see if this new proposal is feasible, viable, and permissible.”

Who says no to $38 million? Someone seeking $48 million, certainly, but that doesn’t appear to be quite what’s going on here, since the PawSox owners already okayed a $38 million contribution previously. One possibility is that they’re concerned they could end up on the hook for more than the $45 million they were willing to put in (with the help of naming rights money and any other new stadium revenues, of course, since they’d get all those and the city and state would get squat), as a Senate Fiscal Office analysis projected that capping the public’s commitment to repay the stadium bonds could result in higher interest rates that would increase the total borrowing cost by $55 million to $87 million, which ain’t chicken feed.

Still, let’s not let the fact that Larry Lucchino & Friends think this is a crappy deal for them lull us into a false sense of security that this isn’t also, and much more certainly, a crappy deal for the Rhode Island public. State and city taxpayers are about to be forced to draw a circle of indeterminate size around a PawSox stadium site, and agree to hand over all property taxes from inside the circle to the team’s owners; if that doesn’t come to $38 million, the city development authority will have to find a way of making up the shortfall. And all this only because the team owners keep making vague threats to move to a city that hasn’t revealed publicly any offer at all in the way of stadium subsidies. And all over the objection of local residents who appear to overwhelmingly oppose the plan, just because in eastern states like Rhode Island, elected officials can broker stadium deals like this without fear of citizens staging a voter referendum to overrule them.

That’s bidding against yourself in the worst way — and all for a team that the city could just go out and buy (or buy a replacement for, if the current owners really insisted on moving) for a fraction of the cost of helping build a new stadium, something that on the minor-league level is actually allowed. The best hope now is that by tweaking the financing of the subsidy, the legislature will have made it equally awful for the team owners, creating a kind of poison pill to save elected officials from themselves. That’s a slim reed to cling to, but if you’re a Rhode Island resident — or a fan of historic ballparks, of whom there are more than a few — right now it’s all you’ve got.

Pawtucket mayor makes move threat for the PawSox, for the PawSox have no voices

The Rhode Island House Finance Committee met yesterday to discuss House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s bill to make the city instead of the state cover any funding shortfalls for a new Pawtucket Red Sox stadium, so what did they resolve about the undecided aspects of the bill? How much higher interest the state would have to pay on bonds without a state guarantee of repayment? Nope. How big a tax increment financing district would be needed to siphon off tax revenues to pay the public’s $38 million in costs? Nuh-uh. But we did get lots of Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien threatening that if Rhode Island didn’t approve the bill — whatever the bill is — the team would move to Worcester:

“They are still committed to listening and hearing what the bills are, but Worcester is on the table,” Grebien told reporters before the hearing on where the team stands. “We need to send them a clear signal … My instincts are: absolutely they want to be here.”

“I am trying to make sure we have a bill so we can have that conversation,” Grebien said. “I can tell you, if we don’t have a bill, they are gone.”

The PawSox owners have been very careful not to openly threaten to move to Worcester, though they did have one of their lobbyists declare sadly that without a new stadium in Pawtucket, Worcester might just make them an offer they couldn’t refuse. Worcester officials have not made any specific public offers at all so far, and PawSox officials didn’t show up at the hearing — they’ve been careful not to say anything at all about Mattiello’s plan, because playing hard to get is always just adorable — so it was left to Grebien to speculate wildly about what exactly was being threatened:

Rep. Antonio Giarrusso, R-East Greenwich, asked Grebien about reports that Worcester was asking the team to only pay $18 million of the stadium costs.

Grebien said the team was not trying to pit one city against the other and had not told him what Worcester’s offer was.

Ah, mayors willing and ready to blackmail themselves. Where would we be without them?

Friday roundup: The news media are collectively losing their goddamn minds edition

It’s a full slate this week, so let’s do this!

Rhode Island house speaker now says he’ll okay $38m in PawSox stadium subsidies if he can make the city cover any state revenue shortfalls

If you’re a close follower of Rhode Island state politics — we’ve gotta watch something now that Roseanne has been canceled, right? — you’ll recall House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello as the guy who keeps declaring Pawtucket Red Sox stadium plans dead because the people of Rhode Island hate it. Though he’s also the guy who kept holding hearings on a stadium proposal anyway, and now he’s the guy who decided that giving $38 million to a minor-league sports team is just peachy so long as the money is capped there:

Mattiello’s plan — its fine print is still being written — will follow the contours of ballpark legislation passed by the Senate earlier this year, he told reporters Tuesday, but remove state backing from more than $80 million in proposed borrowing.

“I think the most important thing that we can say about it is, once we set up the framework, that there is no state guarantee,” Mattiello said. “The state of Rhode Island taxpayers will not be responsible for any of the debt associated with that project.”

The new plan goes like this: The stadium would still cost $83 million to build, which would be paid back by a combination of the team, state, and city. But the state’s share would be limited to tax money from a tax increment financing district around the stadium — in other words, increased property taxes would be kicked back to pay for the stadium construction instead of going into the state’s coffers like it normally would.

This would indeed solve one of the big problems with TIFs — that sometimes they don’t actually generate any revenue and local governments are left holding the bag — but not the more fundamental problem, which is that they often just cannibalize money that the public would be getting anyway, if, say, a new stadium means that a bunch of development gets built there instead of across town.

Anyway, with the state limiting its exposure under Mattiello’s plan, any TIF-related shortfall would have to be covered by … who would it have to be covered by, exactly?

“If revenue comes up short, the Pawtucket Redevelopment Agency will have to figure out how to deal with it,” Mattiello said.

Oh, excellent, so if the state can’t find enough taxpayers to pay its stadium bills, then city taxpayers will have to pick up the slack. I’m so glad that Rhode Island’s elected officials are there to be watchdogs of the public interest, aren’t you?

Friday roundup: Warriors rail stop turns pricey, West End stadium undead again, Montreal mayor meets with would-be Expos owners

Superbrief mode today:

  • Expanding light-rail service to the Golden State Warriors‘ new arena is now expected to cost at least $62 million, which is a lot for Muni Metro, though not for some other transit systems. The Warriors owners are kicking in $19 million, but the rest will be funded by tax money from the arena district, which may or may not be enough to cover the entire nut. Tim Redmond saw this coming.
  • F.C. Cincinnati owners are officially pivoting back to the West End stadium site that it had declared dead last month after not getting offered enough property-tax breaks on the land. How come? Team CEO Jeff Berding said of the other two options, Oakley is “not as close to the urban core as desired,” and the team couldn’t secure land in Newport, Kentucky. Sounds like the West End has the club over somewhat of a barrel, which it should be able to use to ensure the team pays full property taxes, at least, though some residents may be more concerned about keeping out a stadium entirely over fears it will further gentrify their neighborhood.
  • The mayor of Montreal is meeting today with an ownership group that wants to bring a new Expos MLB team back to town. “We don’t need a cent from the city of Montreal, but we need a little help,” prospective co-owner Stephen Bronfman said earlier this week; your guess is as good as mine what that actually means.
  • Minnesota taxpayers have spent $1.4 billion on new or renovated sports venues over the past 20 years, if anyone is counting.
  • The Pawtucket Red Sox‘ stadium demands continue to be stalled, if anyone is keeping track.
  • “A deputy in one of Russia’s 2018 FIFA World Cup host cities has claimed that a latest inspection by the world’s footballing body has neglected a missing column at a newly built stadium.” You’ve just got to read the whole Moscow Times article now, don’t you?

 

PawSox to RI: Approve stadium now, or big bad Worcester will force us to move there

So it turns out that when Rhode Island state house speaker Nicholas Mattiello said Monday that “the Senate bill [for $44 million in public spending on a Pawtucket Red Sox stadium] is dead in the state of the Rhode Island,” he literally just meant the Senate bill was dead; yesterday, Mattiello said the state house will still go ahead with hearings on the stadium plan, and could consider its own bill at some point.

Thus handed a lifeline, the PawSox owners immediately shaped it into a noose and put it around their own necks and declared that without immediate state aid, the team could be under threat for its life. And if that metaphor sounds a little overly Blazing Saddles-esque, no, seriously, listen to what veteran Rhode Island lobbyist–turned–PawSox spokesperson Guy Dufault said yesterday:

“We take Worcester very, very seriously,” Dufault said. “There is no doubt in my mind that Worcester is a viable alternative to the Providence metro area. We need to take that extraordinarily seriously. I think the people and the members of the House of Representatives have to take it that way because it’s real, it’s going to be viable, and I think it’s something we should be very concerned about.

“I feel a sense of urgency. I think if Worcester comes down within the next 30 days with something – it’s pretty easy to beat the other guy’s hand when the other guy has put his cards on the table.”

Back 20 years ago in the first edition of Field of Schemes, Joanna Cagan and I coined the term “non-threat threat” for the kind of “the last thing I would want would be for this team to have to move” statement that has become common among sports team owners wanting to strike fear into the populace without looking quite so much like supervillains with a death ray. (If hotlinks had been available in printed books in 1998, we might well have called it the paratrooper gambit.)

But this takes the non-threat threat to the next level, by denying even that it’s the team making the threat — no, the PawSox owners are “very concerned” that Worcester will swoop in with an offer they can’t refuse, and that would make them sad. Don’t force them to accept free money from some other suitor, Rhode Island, don’t you know you’re the one they really love!

Worcester, meanwhile, still hasn’t actually offered anything, at least not publicly, though city manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. has been meeting with PawSox execs this month. What he’s actually offering toward a new Worcester stadium, and how he feels about being used as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Rhode Island, he won’t say.

And that’s just how the PawSox owners undoubtedly like it, because it means no one can tell if they’re bluffing with their non-threat threats. It’s the same reason Amazon is telling cities bidding to be the home to its new second headquarters to shut up about what they’re offering — when you’re holding a bidding war, it’s in the interest of the seller to keep everyone in the dark about what other bidders are offering, in order to maximize the winner’s curse. You can’t do it without bidders willing to keep their mouths shut, though, and apparently Augustus has been sweet-talked into playing the role of silent bogeyman; it’s elected officials like him who are why we can’t have nice things.

 

 

RI house speaker kills PawSox subsidy bill again, for silly reason that everybody hates it

Ever since the Rhode Island state senate approved $44 million in state and city subsidies for a new Pawtucket Red Sox stadium a couple of weeks back, the big question has been how the bill would fare in the state house, which killed the last version of the bill. So how’s that going?

The plan to build a new stadium for the Pawtucket Red Sox in Rhode Island is “dead,” according to House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello...

“The Senate bill is dead in the state of the Rhode Island. Two-thirds of Rhode Islanders do not support it and therefore, the House will not support it,” Mattiello said.

That sounds pretty dead!

The current PawSox stadium funding plan, you’ll recall, involves the state putting up $26 million and the city $18 million toward an $83 million stadium; in return, the city would get $250,000 a year in naming rights fees and unspecified cash from a surcharge on premium tickets — which I can’t imagine would amount to all that much, since minor-league ticket buyers aren’t known for their eagerness to sit in luxury boxes. All this for a team that you could just up and buy for about $20 million. It is an awful deal, and those two-thirds of Rhode Island voters have good reason to hate it.

The only argument for the deal is hinted at in the source of the above quoted text, which is from the Worcester Telegram, which is covering the story because the PawSox owners have threatened to move to Worcester if they don’t get their way in Rhode Island. Worcester has done absolutely nothing to offer the PawSox a stadium or money for one, though, beyond hiring economist-for-hire Andy Zimbalist as a consultant (which Mattiello also did in Rhode Island, weirdly). So offering $44 million as an inducement to stay to a team whose threat of moving so far comes down to “maybe this is really more of a Shelbyville idea” would be the epitome of bidding against yourself. It would be totally reasonable negotiating for Mattiello to come back with “How about we only put up $10 million, or better yet, you actually pay us enough rent so the public can recoup all of its stadium debt?” and see what happens; we’ll see if that’s the route he goes.

Finally, I can’t leave out my absolute favorite part of the Telegram article:

Meanwhile, in Rhode Island, PawSox supporters are going into the heart of Mattiello’s home district in Cranston on Tuesday to pitch their stadium-financing deal.

“You’re invited!″ said the mailer that arrived over the weekend at homes across skeptic Mattiello’s House District 15. “Learn more about the Ballpark at Slater Mill … and enjoy some Tommy’s Pizza.”

Locally sponsored stadium propaganda. Isn’t that just the best thing about minor-league baseball?

Friday roundup: A’s won’t give up on Laney, Isles could play “some” games at Coliseum, more!

Tons of stray news items this week, so let’s get right to them:

  • The Rhode Island state senate’s finance committee approved $44 million in spending by the state and city of Pawtucket for a new Pawtucket Red Sox stadium, which is what everyone expected, because the real opposition is in the state house. A spokesperson for House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said that if the bill passes the Senate, “it will be assigned to the House Finance Committee and be given a public hearing,” which isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement, but then, Mattiello has been saying consistently that his constituents hate this plan.
  • Oakland A’s president Dave Kaval said that the team owners have “identified three final locations” for a new stadium, and … they’re the same three sites the team announced more than a year ago, even after Laney College officials since took themselves out of the running. “We spent a lot of time getting it to three final sites, and those are the sites that are viable,” Kaval told reporters. Props for sticking to your convictions, I guess, but there’s a time to go to a Plan B, and it’s maybe after Plan A told you, “Get offa our lawn.”
  • The city of Liverpool is set to spend £280 million on a new stadium for Everton F.C., four years after saying no to a similar plan, but Mayor Joe Anderson defends the plan as a loan that the team will repay and more. The Guardian reports that “the city council could make £7m-a-year profit from interest charged on a loan of £280m over 25 years, plus extra revenue from business rates and related developments once the stadium is up and running” — which sounds good if the profit is guaranteed just from the loan payments (the city would reportedly have first dibs on Everton team revenue), not so much if it would rely on those “related developments,” which could be stuff that would happen with or without a new stadium. As is so often the case, it all comes down to what that comma means.
  • NHL commissioner Gary Bettman toured Nassau Coliseum on Tuesday, after which New York Islanders owner Jon Ledecky said he was “confident” that “some games” would be played there while waiting for a new Belmont Park arena to be built, but that playing full seasons there would be “difficult.” So that would imply … some games in Nassau and some in Brooklyn, since the two arenas have the same owner? Some in Nassau and some at Madison Square Garden, which is set to help build the new arena? Some in Nassau and some on a frozen-over East River after that ice age that the American Museum of Natural History seems to think is imminent hits? Your guess is as good as mine.
  • A Unitarian minister writes in an op-ed for the Charlotte Observer that if the Charlotte city council is going to spend money on a new Carolina Panthers stadium, it should be required to build affordable housing, too. My theology is shaky at best, so I’m not sure what Unitarianism has to say about a right canceling out a wrong.
  • Speaking of North Carolina, the Hurricanes got a new owner this week, and in his first few hours as head of the team, he didn’t demand a new arena or threaten to move the team without one. Though that may have more to do with the team’s sweetheart lease on its current arena that last through 2024, which had led former owner Peter Karmanos to say in 2015 that “we’d have to be idiots to move from here,” so give the new guy a few more hours, at least.
  • This. You’re welcome.